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A Church for the “Nones”

The decline of church attendance among millennials is a framing issue of the modern world, reflective of the changing structure for our society. To understand the drop in church affiliation among millennials, which is viewed as a symptom of the increasing secularization of America, most research has focused on personal barriers or the internal reasons 18- to 29-year-olds choose not to attend church. Yet the decay of the church in America is a two-sided issue. We need to consider the church’s role and responsibility in the issue; are churches changing with the times, integrating their missions into an increasingly technological world and aiming to meet this generation where it is at, without evading hard questions of social justice?

In the past decade, the large generation gap in terms of church attendance has evolved to become an increasingly stark divide. Millennials average about half the time per day engaging in religious activities than do non-millennials. In fact, only a third of millennials (those born in 1981–96) claim to attend a service once a month, and there are as many millennials who say they will go to church once a week as those who say they never go. Sixty-two percent of those identifying as Christians say they attend church once or twice a month, consistent to past research. Thus, America’s church attendance rate is not declining because Christians are attending church less often, but because the amount of Christians in the American population is declining.

This phenomenon presents a challenge for the church body. How, in an increasingly secularized culture, does the church appeal to and welcome the younger generation? The lack of community involvement for millennials is already an issue; lack of community is cited as a significant reason for increasing isolation and the loneliness epidemic of modern culture. To degrade the role of churches in society is to increase partisanship and weaken the cohesive nature of society.

The narrative surrounding church affiliation, or lack thereof, of millennials is that attendance is solely the individual’s responsibility. Of course, individual impetus is an essential factor, yet research on the topic focuses primarily on internal as opposed to external factors. The commonly cited external factors for religious disaffiliation are longer transition time to adulthood, deferred marriage or shifting family definitions, and financial independence. In the internal category, cited are identity exploration, instability, and young adults’ self-focused nature. Essentially, the society is shifting in its definition of where one can find community, and young adults are wrestling with questions of identity and ultimately attempting to find where they fit in the world. In a recent Pivot Northwest study, millennials compiled a short list for values they found important to a fulfilling life; this list included purpose, relationships, peace, and spiritual growth. Contrary to the way society often frames the church attendance issue, young adults are not pulling away from community, fulfillment, or fellowship; they simply have not found churches to be the place to provide those values. The “come to us first” posture is weakening church appeal and is frankly not effective. Thus, the church retains some responsibility for increasing millennial church attendance. How do church communities present themselves as communities and not highly selective, members-only clubs? How can churches act as an avenue for fellowship among millennials and not a hypocritical, judgmental system?

To combat the off-ramps that most millennial “nones” associate church with, churches must first realize what defines the millennial generation. A group that has been marketed to nearly since birth, millennials have adopted a high sense of prioritization — essentially a survival technique to sift through the constant flow of information and opportunity they are presented with each minute. In a hyper-speed world that moves at the pace of the internet, time is increasingly precious and hard to find. Thus, the things that millennials choose to allot time to need to be worthy, in their mind, of that time. If the church assumes a passive role in outreach, the appeal is lost, and the invitation may not even make it to an individual past all other distractions and invitations.

The church needs to have an invitation that is distinctly different than other marketing. The church community is not an influencer or a niche affiliate group tempered to the bubble that one can reside in, but a welcoming and diverse family. If young adults are looking for a space for community and ways to connect with one another and are yearning for connection — as every human being does — the church must be a welcoming place.

This could require altering church legislation to make room for different attendees. Change requires sacrifice. This means churches should meet the current young adult generation where it is at. They should administer to the increasing population of secular couples and families that do not operate like the common nuclear family anymore and to youths who express ambivalence and uncertainty about religion. Essentially, if churches continue to administer to models of past generations, the gap between young adult society and religious affiliation will continue to widen. If there was ever a time to build bridges, it is now.